Sunday, March 27, 2022

ghoul and gorilla

The English word "ghoul" derives from Arabic. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for ghoul:

1786, goul, in the English translation of William Beckford's Orientalist novel "Vathek" (which was written in French), from Arabic ghul, an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses, from ghala "he seized."

The Arabic ghul as "demon" also gives us the name of the star Algol which is also known as the "Demon Star." The full name in Arabic is raʾs al-ghūl  - "the head of the demon" (because as part of the constellation of Perseus, it is the head of Medusa that Perseus is holding.) This name entered more modern mythology as a villain in the Batman comic books -  Ra's al Ghul.

Stahl, in his etymological dictionary of Arabic, quotes the historian and linguist Isaac Yahuda as saying that the word "gorilla" may have the same origin. While there is consensus on how "gorilla" entered English, its earlier history is unclear. For example, here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:

1847, applied to a species of large apes (Troglodytes gorilla) by U.S. missionary Thomas Savage, from Greek gorillai, plural of name given to wild, hairy beings (now supposed to have been chimpanzees) in a Greek translation of Carthaginian navigator Hanno's account of his voyage along the northwest coast of Africa, c. 500 B.C.E. Allegedly an African word.

In his book Mishley Arav ("Proverbs of Arabia") Yahuda identifies ghul with "gorilla". I don't know how likely it is that Hanno would have encountered Arabic speakers in that part of Africa, but perhaps this was a cognate in a different Semitic, or Afroasiatic language. Or maybe Arabic speakers later conflated their ghul demon with the scary gorilla. (See here for another example of that association in Arabic).

Yahuda also claims that gilul גלול - the Biblical Hebrew word for idols - is also cognate with ghul. Presumably, he's referring to the ancient practice of worshiping demons, which the Bible prohibits and denigrates. 

However, I couldn't find any other source that makes that claim. The popular view is Klein's position, that gilul refers to rolled (גלל) dung:

גִּלּוּל m.n. idol. [According to some scholars related to גָּלָל (= dung); according to Baudissin and to others גִּלּוּלִים derives from גלל (= to roll), and orig. meant ‘rolled blocks’. cp. BAram. אֶבֶן גְּלָל (= square stones), and see גּֽלָל. The form גִּלּוּל was influenced by שִׁקּוּץ (= abomination).] 

I'm still curious if ghul has a more solid Hebrew cognate. I didn't see anyone who made this connection, but Klein does discuss the root עול - "to give suck" (like a nursing mother), and says that it is "related to Arabic ghālat (= she gave suck)." Could ghala ("he seized") perhaps be related to ghālat? A nursing baby latches on to, "seizes", the mother. Maybe? If so, it would provide us with the words עוּל and עולל, meaning "baby, infant." 

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